The study was performed on premature infants at Catania University Hospital's Department of Neonatal Intensive Care, using lactobacillus reuteri protectis (Reuteri), and is being submitted for publication. Prematurely born infants are at risk of infection and in neonatal intensive care wards this can affect 25-40 percent of infants.
Not only could the findings of the Italian study potentially lower health care costs in the future, but they could also have positive implications for the use of probiotics on premature infants in the US - where the concept of 'friendly bacteria' has not grown to the same extent as in Europe.
"North America's different in the sense that awareness of probiotics is behind compared to Europe," BioGaia senior vice president of research Eamon Connolly told NutraIngredients-USA.com. But this could change if, among other factors, preterm babies are to benefit.
In 2003, one in eight babies was born preterm in the US - up 12 percent from 1993 - according to the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.
Apart from the effects of the probiotic, the benefit of the Reuteri drops is that they are easy to give to babies. "BioGaia developed the Drops as a covenient delivery system for infants - 5 drops per day," said Connolly.
In the Italian study 184 premature babies admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit immediately after delivery were randomly allocated to one of three groups: 67 babies received BioGaia Reuteri drops, 55 babies received another probiotic, lactobacilus rhamnosus GG (LGG), and 62 babies were treated with the normal treatment (control group).
In both groups receiving daily probiotics, the risk of infection by yeast (candida) was reduced. In the control group, 6.4 percent of the infants had infections compared to 1.4 percent in the Reuteri group and 3.6 percent in the LGG group.
The incidence of bacterial infections was also reduced in the probiotic groups compared to the control group: 1.4 percent in the Reuteri group, 3.6 percent in the LGG group and 9.6 percent in the control group.
The Reuteri group displayed further effects such as an earlier weaning from intravenous nutrition to normal feeding and markedly fewer infants were affected by gastro-intestinal problems, when compared to the control group.
Gastro-intestinal symptoms were observed in 2 of 67 infants that were given Reuteri compared to 14 of 55 in the LGG group and 27 of 62 in the control group.
BioGaia says it did not commission the study.
"The Reuteri drops product is available in the Italian market and this led to the interest of the study centre," said Connolly. "BioGaia did not support the study but the investigators did have contact with our licencees Noos, who market the product in Italy."